Political Notebook: Home invasion spurred CA Senate candidate Beckles into politics

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 14, 2023
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State Senate candidate Jovanka Beckles, center left, spoke to supporters during her campaign kickoff May 13 in Richmond. Photo: Courtesy the campaign
State Senate candidate Jovanka Beckles, center left, spoke to supporters during her campaign kickoff May 13 in Richmond. Photo: Courtesy the campaign

Wanting to live closer to where they both worked, Jovanka Beckles and her wife, Nicole Valentino, left Alameda in 2005 for Richmond, California, where they could afford to buy a home for themselves and their then teenage son, Lucio Valentino. They were undeterred by the East Bay city's reputation as being unsafe.

"We had heard all the stories about crime," recalled Beckles, employed 23 years now as a mental health clinician with Contra Costa County. "The whole city is not crime laden."

The women throughout their careers, Valentino as a life coach, have worked with children, in particular Black and Latino youth. Beckles, who was born in Panama City, Panama, and immigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 1972, is both Black and Latina.

"When we would pass young people on the street, we would make eye contact, give them a smile and say hello. Most of the time they would smile and say hello back," said Beckles. "For a lot of young people, they are used to being on guard to always be ready for some confrontation. We felt it was important to present them with an energy of love and trust, so we were not going to be afraid when a young person walks up to us in a hoodie."

One night in 2006, coming home from DJing a wedding with her wife in the passenger seat, Beckles pulled their car into the couple's garage and noticed a young man walking up the driveway. Instinctually, she rolled down the car window and asked if he needed help.

"That was when he pulled out a gun. Another young man came up after him and had his hand in his pocket like it was a gun," recalled Beckles. "We didn't know if it was or not. It was a really horrifying moment for us."

Their son, a recent high school graduate, was at home in his bedroom with a headset on, unaware of what was taking place in the garage and then the living room, where the two robbers had brought his mothers.

"The one with the gun in his pocket had my wife sit down in the living room and he stayed with her. Meanwhile, the other one kept his gun pointed at me and my chest. I led him around the house to see what we had; it was terrifying."

The last room they entered was that of the couple's son, who looked up at what was happening with a look of "is this a joke?" recalled Beckles. The robber made him lie down on the floor, while his accomplice had brought Valentino into the room at that point. They surveyed the bedroom with its guitar, video games, and other items.

"Wow, it must be nice to be loved," one of the young men said.

"I would never forget that — you can see why it was a pivotal moment for me — what he said amidst the chaos he was causing and trauma he was causing because of the pain and trauma in his life, but he could look around and sense the love our son had," said Beckles, now a grandmother to her son's three children ages 4, 7, and 19.

Because the assailants had masks on, Beckles told them her family wouldn't be able to identify them and asked that they just leave them alone and go. The two men did leave, but not before ripping out the family's landline telephone and stealing some cash, jewelry, and several computers.

The family waited 15 minutes before contacting the police and filed a report with their insurance company the next day. The suspects were never found.

Speaking about the incident recently with the Bay Area Reporter, Beckles said she no longer recalls the exact date the robbery took place. The experience, though, has had a lasting impact, she said.

"It was a defining moment for me. I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh! Some children in our community are blessed enough to be getting mental health services and therapy, but so many in our community feel nobody loves them or feel the community is not here for them. They are feeling helpless and turning that internalized pain and inflicting it on others.' A few weeks later I was still thinking about that and what is missing, what is the policy or legislation that is going to help our children have some hope?"

Soon thereafter, Beckles received a phone call from someone suggesting she run for a seat on the Richmond City Council. She decided to do so and won election in 2010. One of her first accomplishments was banning the city from asking job applicants if they had a criminal record.

"So many children I worked with had parents or caretakers who would be incarcerated for crimes of survival. But when released and they would come back to their homes, they couldn't get a job," said Beckles, 60, who lost her bid for a state Assembly seat in 2018 the same year that a statewide "ban the box" law went into effect for most private employers.

Now seeking election to a state Senate seat, Beckles traces her wanting to become an elected officeholder to that fateful night 17 years ago. As her campaign website notes, "It was after experiencing a life-altering home invasion by desperate young people, that Jovanka was directly impacted by the profound needs of our growing marginalized communities. She felt moved to run for political office..."

Talking about the incident with the B.A.R., Beckles said, "It really changed my perspective on how to address systemic oppression, systemic violence, and I think it helped me to address the root causes of so many of the problems we are seeing in our society."

Crowded field

She is one of five Democrats seeking the East Bay's open 7th Senate District seat that spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties from Rodeo south to the San Leandro border. The seat largely mirrors the current 9th Senate District held by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) but was renumbered during the 2020 redistricting process.

Skinner is term limited from running again next year. Beckles, elected two years ago to the board that oversees the AC Transit public transportation agency, would be the first LGBTQ member of the state Legislature from the East Bay and the first out Black female state legislator should she win the Senate seat.

Also in the race is California Labor Federation President Kathryn Lybarger, who lives with her wife, Nina Ackerberg, in Berkeley. A gardener at UC Berkeley since 2001, Lybarger has also served as president of the UC system's largest employee union, AFSCME Local 3299, since 2011.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, and former Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, who departed the Legislature in 2012, are also running for the Senate seat.

Supporting Beckles in the race is Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, a Black progressive leader who has faced criticisms for her lenient charging decisions in a number of cases since taking over the office in January. Rather than downplay having Price's endorsement due to the public scrutiny of her tenure to date, Beckles told the B.A.R. she is excited to have Price's support.

"This is a woman, a civil rights attorney, that believes in justice and believes we can have a justice system that works for us, not just a few people who are wealthy and have a different skin color," said Beckles. "Pamela is, I feel she is righteous and she ... I feel like the controversy isn't coming from the community in general."

Rather, Beckles said it is due to certain media sources treating Price differently than they did her predecessor, Nancy O'Malley, who didn't receive the same media scrutiny for how she made her charging decisions.

"Now we have someone making sure justice is served right for all of us and they are making it seem so controversial and as if she is allowing criminals to walk free. That is not true," said Beckles.

In a follow-up message Beckles noted how those working for change are routinely seen as controversial, whether it be the Black Panther Party or Martin Luther King Jr. to Jesus Christ during his day.

"We shouldn't be afraid of people who are doing the right thing for the advancement of a group of people," she said. "I would not be at all concerned about them endorsing me; they stand for justice."

Wanting to address the root causes behind why someone turns to criminal acts, particularly young people like the two men who robbed her family, continues to drive her desire to serve as an elected officeholder, said Beckles. And like other out candidates now running amid a rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiment and online vitriol, she is undaunted about putting herself in the public eye.

"People ask me that, 'Why are you running? Are you a glutton for punishment?' I really am not," said Beckles, who was routinely subjected to anti-LGBTQ slurs during city council meetings. "It is the same reason why I endured those types of attacks and vitriol on the Richmond City Council. I think about the young people and the young people watching. If we are afraid then it just creates hopelessness for the next generation."

Harkening to a sentiment espoused by the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, Beckles added, "I am all about providing hope and comforting a younger generation and empowering the next generation to be who they are in this world."

To learn more about her candidacy, visit jovanka4casenate.com.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on a San Francisco supervisors' resolution in support of repealing the same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8 that state voters narrowly adopted in 2008.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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